O'Pinions & O'Bservations O' O'Bscure O'Briania

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Date: Fri, 17 Mar 2000 05:11:09 -0800
From: Susan Wenger

This opens the discussion of Patrick O'Brian's short story Billabillian. Does anyone know if this word means anything in any language?

- Susan

Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2000 10:23:14 +1100
From: Peter Mackay

Sadly it does. In Gatespeak.

Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2000 09:00:42 +0100
From: Gustaf Erikson

It is the language in which Microsoft documentation is written. It closely resembles English, except for absence of the word `bug'.


Gustaf Erikson --- 59*19'N 18*05'E --- http://www.f.kth.se/~f92-ger/

Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2000 13:41:43 +0000
From: Martin Watts

Peter MacKay answered:
Sadly it does. In Gatespeak

. Of course. As in "Give Bill a Billion.".

Martin Watts
50 45' N 1 55' W.
The Borough and County of the Town of Poole

Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2000 18:32:50 -0800
From: Susan Wenger

A youth is aboard a ship in a faraway land, on the far side of the world, completely out of his element, everything is strange:

"A general roar on deck broke across his train of thought: he looked up, and there, framed in the wooden square, was a brown girl, her face and her bare breasts pointing up to the rail."

What a fetching image: wonderful command of words.

- Susan

Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2000 00:27:58 -0800
From: Marshall Rafferty

And the lists, in his uncle's instructions, reminding me of Umberto Eco but less tedious. Magical words. And yet... another shocking, confusing ending. These stories are beginning to sap me.

Marshall, fuddled

Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2000 17:33:15 -0800
From: Susan Wenger

Aaaah, the mark of the artist. You may laugh, you may cry, you may be fascinated, repelled, but you WILL react!

- Susan

Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2000 17:44:07 -0800
From: Marshall Rafferty

Well, chalk me up as repelled by Billabillion. Except for the colors, sounds, smells and Cornelius's notes.

I'm going to be obtuse here, though, and ask for help. What was the nature of his blunder? Was there confusion over the word "billabillion" and the official's name? Were the uncle's wordy notes a pack of bad advice? Did he simply run afoul of a Godly captain?

If anyone wants to avoid spoiling the story I'll happily accept enlightenment off-list.

Marshall, not proud

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2000 11:35:09 -0800
From: Matt Cranor

It's been awhile since I read this, but I remember a powerfully ambiguous ending: what will the Captain do? As the story ends, he has just learned enough about the boy's arrangements to perceive the possible merit in them. Perhaps the uncle's instructions were very good indeed, the solution to a difficult diplomatic situation has been dropped into the Captain's lap, at the very last second, by an impertinent urchin whom he has just threatened...

.. or maybe it's just the total SNAFU that it seems to be. Either way, the kid's in hot water.

Matt Cranor

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2000 18:01:49 -0800
From: Susan Wenger

I had the impression of self-righteous evil at the end. We are not in a known place, and we are not dealing with a known word or concept. In my opinion, lad Cornelius is going to be subjected to an alien tribal rite, perhaps he will become soup. But the strangeness is not restricted to the new country - it existed on board the ship, as well. I think the ship's Captain was as unknown to Cornelius as the man in the gorgeous sarong.

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2000 19:29:11 -0800
From: Marshall Rafferty

This rings true. In fact the Captain seems the most dangerous element. After all, he not only had his uncles notes, but Swann's instructions as well, but there's obviously many unknowns present.

Lingering thoughts about the story, other than the shocking ending: that square of light and sound and color and smells while he waits in the cabin; the confusion of someone who, as far as he could, followed all the instructions, checked the rules, did everything right only to have it fall apart at the end.

I can't help but think of the author's first marriage. I bet he thought he was doing all the right things, following the rules, trying, yet somehow it went all wrong. I married at 37. If I'd done it more than 10 years sooner it would have been a disaster.


Date: Sat, 25 Mar 2000 09:20:04 -0800
From: Susan Wenger

So maybe the lesson of this story was to think stuff through and not live according to a formula or according to how other people succeeded or what they tell you to do?

In which case, why did it have such an exotic setting? Such a lesson could be as easily learned in familiar surroundings?

- Susan

Date: Sat, 25 Mar 2000 12:41:14 -0800 From: Susan Wenger

I asked Anthony Clover about the meaning of the word "Billabillian," and he sent me a delightful reply, which I re-post to this list with his permission:

I have quickly glanced at the story - for barely more than ten seconds - and as a pure guess I would suggest that it might be a European corruption of some word in a Malayo-Polynesian language such as Javanese or on the Austronesian language, Indonesian. It might even be a compound of a European word with a Far Eastern one, e.g. the English "bill" with "banya(k)" (= 'many' in Indonesian) - and to add the suffix -an in Javanese produces what is called a resultative, which is, I'd guess, not unlike the use of -an in Indonesian to produce the (preferred) passive form of a verb.

The word doesn't seem to be Dutch, the language of the original colonial masters of the area.

I am probably wrong, but there it is, for what it is worth. I don't think it is an Irish Gaelic word.

By the way, by coincidence I read somewhere earlier this year that before the East Indian spices were transplanted and cultivated in the West Indies, i.e. in the 1500s and early 1600s, especially nutmegs but also cloves were like gold dust - not least because so many lives were lost sailing that far to get them, for it was a high-risk gamble, with storms and pirates along the way to contend with.

Also, there were only two small islands at the extreme east of the island complex where they were grown. For example, I vaguely recall a nutmeg (whole) being valued at something like eight pounds in London, a sum which, it seems to me, might even have bought a small house at the time.

Back to my self-imposed (and productive) purdah ...

with best wishes,

Date: Sun, 26 Mar 2000 23:25:51 -0500
From: u1c04803

There's a similar word--and I'm not sure of the spelling--used to designate little statues of men, some grotesque. Some sitting crosslegged, protruding stomachs, maybe swollen features, smiling. I think they're associated with Masons, or other men's groups. But don't know what they represent.


Date: Mon, 27 Mar 2000 10:10:31 -0500
From: Don Seltzer

Susan Wenger wrote:
So maybe the lesson of this story was to think stuff through and not live according to a formula or according to how other people succeeded or what they tell you to do?

I think that the moral is more about the importance of personal relations. O'Leary is shown to be very isolated, keeping to his cabin while memorizing his uncle's written instructions. The whole business of a second ship and the mid-voyage transfer would be superfluous if it did not serve the purpose of lending additional credibility to O'Leary being unacquainted with the captain and other trading personnel.

The ability to trade and deal with bribes, kickbacks, etc., is not something set down in a user's manual, but a human social skill. By not interacting socially with his partners, he does not establish whether he can trust them, or they can trust him in a risky venture. I can't tell whether he has the misfortune to be paired with an honest captain, or if he is simply being double-crossed. In either case, he is the victim.

As usual, I find the end frustrating. Perhaps "Billabillian" is the official's name or title, and it is meant as an ironic word play. Maybe it means "payback" or something similar, and the mulatto is simply saying it is payback time.

There is a word play in English that almost works. "Customs" meaning the duty on trade goods or the officials who collect it, and the alternate meaning of traditional practices by social agreement, rather than by written law or contract (the immemorial custom of the service).

Don Seltzer

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